Wait for It: On Michael Robbins and Refrains

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Michael Devine is co-founder of   Famous Letter Writer, an arts collective exploring connectivity through music, poetics, and live performance. Which?” thinks Joyce’s Leopold Bloom sitting on a toilet, dreaming of authoring a story — a life — with his estranged wife Molly. Isn’t all of this — poetry’s form and function, the way it equips us — central to its political relevance? As my friend Keith Zarriello of The Shivers puts it in a song that reminds you what songs sometimes so effortlessly do, “And then God made Adam Eve / And then Eve said I want more.” That’s all we want from our equipment, from our poems, from this life. Can a poem be a pop song? Wait for it. How else? Might literary texts, writes Burke in “Literature as Equipment for Living,” function as “proverbs writ large”? More. The rest of the poem is risky, maybe humiliating, cheesy as a refrain you sing along to, a proverb you live by. It told me what poems do. What are these fragments he’s Jersey shored against our ruin? Nas is still there, but so is Dom Gregory Dix going all pre-Nicene in The Shape of the Liturgy. His “I eye” isn’t exactly an “aye” for solidarity:
Because he appears not to have changed
them in days I eye the heel-chewed hems
of his pants and think probably he will
ask me for fifty cents any minute now wait
for it. In terms of application? Equipment. The world’s been cavity-searched, so lose your illusion. and he says pardon me Old School he
says you know is this a wishing well? ¤
Pop is not enough. A kid just googled
Is God really dead? Molly Bloom’s “Yes” rings out, becomes Robbins’s “yes yes y’all.”
Is it the rhyme, the alchemy of form (tulips, two lips) that enthralled me? ¤
I think of “Wishing Well,” a poem off Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning Digest. L. The question ends a book that upends the usual order of things. That’s consoling: if things do fall apart, the poetic may just survive it all. O Siri, can you tell me? If you want the rest, you’ll have to wait for it. What if, in aspiring to pop, poetry found a new way to talk about its social function, even recovering along the way the pleasures of old-fashioned — no, better — old-school form? Robbins wants a poem to be a pop song. NOVEMBER 16, 2017

I’M A SONGWRITER, which means I write refrains. Hack a poem, said Pound to Whitman, “[n]ow is a time for carving.”
Why bother? With Robbins in mind, I revisit it and wonder why. Wait for it. Then and now: Refrains, connects, bridges. And close your eyes.” Borderline corny, borderline intriguing: the men embrace (“his rough hand / in mine inflates like a blood pressure cuff”) and a burden gets shared: “See now,” says the stranger (quoting Mark 8; John 9), “you’ll never walk alone” (quoting Rodgers and Hammerstein and everyone else whose heart has touched and been touched by that refrain, from Nina Simone to Gerry and the Pacemakers.)
“We have to make ourselves vulnerable to one another,” says Pardlo to an interviewer. Comforting or isolating? I think of DJ Renegade’s haiku when I read, say, about Hart Crane’s The Bridge and its “inviolate curve,” that Aeolian harp, shining like a national guitar. They are the what and how we share. Yeah Son I say sideways over my shrug […]
Throw your bread on the water. I think of the first one that moved me. He is poetry editor of   Saranac Review   and an associate professor of English at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh. The proverb casually tossed. “Dom Gregory Dix, in his classic The Shape of the Liturgy,” write Robbins, “lamented the decline of the corporate worship of the Eucharist ‘into a mere focus for the subjective devotion of each separate worshipper in the isolation of his own mind.’” Well, one can wish otherwise, and “Wishing Well” wants to: Pardlo gets what Robbins calls pop’s “artifactual,” physical embrace. They bind us together. Let’s: Robbins makes you want to dream, to remember: “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey.’” What about first poems? Stop asking if a pop song can be poetic, the question that filled your newsfeed when Bob Dylan won the Nobel: “Sometimes his lyrics do rise to the level of poetry” was, for me, the consensus of friends who normally don’t attribute to poetry the qualities of gaseous elements. So does Kanye West’s “Power”: “the chorus is simultaneously boastful, condemning, and anxious.” And “How does it feel?” Christopher Ricks on “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan: “You immediately grant mixed feelings as to how it feels,” “terrible, terrifying … terrific.” In other words, we’re disavowed and embraced, punished and pardoned, alone together: this is one function of pop’s most powerful form, the ritual refrain. Referring to A. “‘Wishing Well’ […] moves one to tears,” says the interviewer. Cheech, Chong, Walter Ong. ¤
We used to wait for it. It floored me when I first heard Pardlo read it. M. We don’t stop believing. One for Robbins is newsflash worthy: “This just in: Everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you.” But the burden is lighter when we can sing along, when we know the song by heart, when somewhere a stranger is singing, too, and we “are linked to him, however briefly, through the public matter of form: an occasion for artifactual embrace.” Lighter? His debut collection, Alien vs. I thought these were some of the greatest writers I would ever meet. That’s according to Arcade Fire of yesteryear: “We Used to Wait,” one of the more moving meditations on pop form from their sprawling, Grammy-winning The Suburbs (2010), seems now the voice of one crying in the desert:
We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
Now we’re screaming
Sing the chorus again (x2)
Choruses do lots of things: this one condemns and condones. It starts with a sign of peace and ends with a refrain: “Hey man I’m going / to make a wish for you too,” says our well-wisher, now carrying a coin and a condition: all you have to do is “hold my hand. No surprise: It’s on that same bridge where Robbins ends his first collection, another poet-DJ remixing the final words of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom.” For Bloom, texts are useful in all sorts of ways: he wipes himself with the one he’s reading. Is it all in my head? Or the way that Renegade’s poem stated, plainly, that a poem is a handle to grip the world. What’s stopping us? It can be downright embarrassing. What if that gets it backward? Still, Robbins wants a poetry that can rival “its outscale desire, its extravagant want, its implausible or impossible will.” It’s the want at the very heart of creation. He invited me to a group that called itself the Woodshed. “But as I listen to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ today, once again, in the arena of my soul, how high that highest Bic lights the dark,” writes Robbins (hacking Wallace Stevens). We’re alone, and to turn away from form is a turn away from a public tool — equipment — “that symbolically enrolls us with allies who will share the burdens with us,” as Kenneth Burke puts it, a thinker useful to Robbins. Or, to echo another Tom (Waits): What’s Robbins building in there? But one of the real pleasures in his new collection of essays, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, is how Robbins tunes us into form as if for the first time. Call it a Yeatsian repost, a political riposte, or simply good poetic modeling about how form can always be, like everything else these days, hacked: stripped down, streamlined. Call it the poetic tense, poetic tension. Robbins doesn’t, but I’ll quote from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics on “burden”: “(c) […] the leading sentiment or matter of a song or poem […] d) the refrain or chorus of a song.” Burdens are shareable. No surprise, then, that Robbins likes to give props (to Stallings, among others), shout outs, and even share text messages from friends, but also has anecdotes like this one, from his (sadly) uncollected essay on postmodern poetics, “Ripostes”: “I once tried to explain my admiration for Paul Muldoon to a young poet I know, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hack your phone. What do poems talk about when they talk about forms? Because even though “we act like nobody dies,” a Thao & The Get Down Stay Down refrain, everyone does. Burdens? Hack your life. “By Mr. Actually, that’s only half of it. The poem lives in me. E. Don’t: Because there’s no great revelation coming. Stallings and Robbins, Michael Lista has argued that “some of the freshest poetry today is employing some of the stalest techniques.” In the face of what he calls pop’s “familiar extravagances” — not just Journey wristbands and Yeezus himself, but Axl Rose’s codas and more — Robbins makes you wonder: Why refrain? Perhaps Pardlo’s poem moves me, in part, because it stages a refusal to share. There I worked with Brian Gilmore, Yona Harvey, Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Invent a story for some proverb. Here’s one:
A kid just googled
Is God really dead? Predator (2012), made him synonymous with pop: his poems attempted pop’s “formal mimesis,” which seemed easy enough to write off as fanboyish, a parodic homage of sorts. Pop is too much. Turns out, I was right. For Robbins, “[f]orm grounds us in a community, however attenuated or virtual.” Those final four words show Robbins — a master of the Twitter short-short form — to be particularly useful for poets today, who, taking the measure of their art and audience, may very well find the “gyre wide af.” That’s Robbins’s pinned post-election tweet: the core of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“The falcon cannot hear the falconer”) in 12 characters you can imagine as easily on a piece of papyrus as on a smartphone. What’s it mean to think about literature in terms of what Robbins calls “shareability”? and Mrs. I think of the title of Gilmore’s brilliant 1992 debut: Elvis Presley Is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem. No, it let me dream about function by telling me about forms, how a poem rings out:
A poem should curve
Like the bell of a tulip
Or a pistol grip
— DJ Renegade
I did what any teenager would do: I immediately tracked down Joel Dias-Porter at a reading — he’d been a DJ, he was a national Slam champ — and asked him to teach me to write. I opened a book to Muldoon’s poem ‘Yarrow’; she immediately balked: ‘I don’t like poems that look like that.’ She meant poems written in regular stanzas.”
Stanzas carry burdens. Hymnals, everyone: join in singing “Carry on, my wayward son.” We thumb our neon bibles. Reminded of music — of what music does and how it works — I’m again reminded by Robbins of how poems work, of what they do when they really work on me. The poem tells of a chance encounter between a poet and another man “Outside the Met”: nothing special, a meeting, at the Met, with a question — harmless, loaded — about a fountain, about social, communal forms, whether they still exist. I guess I’m not alone. ¤
To discuss form in light of poetry’s function seems at this late date to be putting the missile back in the silo. It’s the burden of the poem. A refrain, a chorus, salvation. ¤
At least that’s how poet and critic Michael Robbins makes me see it. I was young.